The fight by First Nations to save an Arctic refuge from drilling is running out of time

·5 min read

The Gwich'in are once again facing down a threat to their way of life, as outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump makes a late-game effort to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration before he leaves office.

The refuge, known as ANWR, is just inside Alaska's border with Yukon. It is a vast, pristine area of wilderness. The Porcupine caribou herd migrates there each spring from The Northwest Territories, Yukon and other parts of Alaska to calve on its coastal plain over the summer.

But the refuge also sits on top of an estimated 10 billion barrels of oil. Indigenous and conservation groups argue that opening the area to energy exploration would have a significant, negative impact on the herd.

Dana Tizya-Tramm, the chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Yukon, said the survival of the Porcupine caribou is linked to the survival of his nation, its culture and identity.

"Our people have been intrinsically tied to this herd for millennia, our village being aligned with the traditional migratory routes," Tizya-Tramm said in an interview airing Saturday on a special co-production between The House and CBC North.

"To this day, our children are born and are fed caribou broth [and] teethe on the bones, as our elders are fed choice parts from the caribou. So in every way, shape and form, even our government and our way of life is informed by the Porcupine caribou herd."

Trump isn't the first U.S. president to covet the jobs and tax revenue that would come from opening up the refuge to drilling. What he and proponents of the work fail to acknowledge, said Tizya-Tramm, is the staggering potential cost to the Gwich'in on both sides of the border.

'A last-ditch effort'

"It's all about development for development's sake. So at this time, we do find ourselves in a last-ditch effort, as David versus Goliath, to ensure the protection of these lands, the protection of our nation moving forward," he said.

"But unfortunately, that doesn't translate into Trump's lexicon and it does not find its way into legislation."

The Gwich'in and conservation groups are leading a campaign to convince banks and insurance companies to refuse to take part in any energy projects in the refuge. So far, a number of Canadian and international banks have indicated they will not underwrite exploration in the area.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP

Meanwhile, media reports suggest interest in bidding for drilling rights in the refuge might be modest, as oil prices drop and governments around the globe look for ways to reduce emissions.

Opponents of drilling in the refuge hope that president-elect Joe Biden will follow through on his campaign commitment to permanently protect ANWR and other public lands from energy exploration.

"I feel now more than ever this opportunity is on the horizon for us to engage with this administration to levy the highest level of protections that can be designated from the U.S. government on these lands," Tizya-Tramm said.

The wild card in all of this, as always, is Trump.

His efforts to put in place lease agreements before his term expires on Jan. 20 underscore the difficulties involved in balancing the demands of those who want to exploit the oil and gas reserves with the interests of those intent on preserving the refuge, and of the people who depend on the animals there for survival.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
Carlos Barria/Reuters

Seismic testing to scope out oil reserves in the ANWR might happen before the year is out. So the clock is ticking.

"We still may see seismic activity in this area, which in and of itself will lead to irreparable damage done to the tundra permafrost and the sensitive caribou calving grounds," Tizya-Tramm said.

Without the herd to sustain the Gwich'in, the chief warned, it could fall to the federal government to keep his community afloat.

Canada and the U.S. are supposed to be united in their efforts to protect the herd; the two countries struck a legally-binding agreement in 1987 to conserve the Porcupine caribou population and its habitat.

"Unfortunately, there are no provisions in this agreement for dispute resolution," Tizya-Tramm said.

Canada 'actively working' to protect refuge

In a statement to CBC News, Global Affairs Canada said the government was "actively working" to respond to the Trump administration's move to sell oil leases in the refuge.

"We continue to work closely with the governments of the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and affected Indigenous peoples to bring forward to the U.S. government our shared concerns," the department wrote.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson also told CBC that he is working to convince the U.S. to protect the ANWR from exploration.

"I will be doing everything that I possibly can to advocate both to the existing Trump administration and the incoming Biden administration that this should not happen and this not the appropriate way to think about development in this day and age," he said.

Tizya-Tramm said he also plans to get in touch with Biden's camp in the coming weeks. He said he applauds the Liberal government's efforts on the issue so far, and its recognition of the intimate connection between the Gwich'in and the Porcupine herd.

"As a young man, to have access to the upper echelons of the federal government, it goes a long way for me, bringing back successes to our people," he said.